Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Copyright law is killing audio preservation

In 2000 the Library of Congress was tasked with preserving the audio portion of our cultural heritage by The National Recording Preservation Act of 2000 (P.L. 106-474). A study was initiated to determine the best way to preserve audio, identify problems and examine possible solutions. That study was released a few weeks ago, and you can find the 181 page pdf here. It identified several difficulties in preserving audio recordings, including the many different digital formats that have come and gone in the recent past, leaving some audio in formats that are difficult to read. In fact, it is actually harder to access some recent digital recordings than to access recordings that are around a hundred years old.

But the greatest threat to preserving our audio heritage isn't technological, it's legal. According to the study there is no legal way to adequately archive audio. Copyright law is written in such a way that it is next to impossible for libraries to archive - and grant access to - many, if not most, audio files. In fact, the study says that,

Privileges extended by copyright law to libraries and archives to copy sound recordings are restrictive and anachronistic in the face of current technologies, and create only the narrowest of circumstances in which making copies is fully permissible.

It makes me wonder: Is it actually legal for libraries to loan out books on tape or CD? They suffer from many of the same copyright issues as audio recordings. I find it refreshing that a government institution is beginning to realize that, while there is a legitimate purpose for copyright, when it gets too restrictive it becomes more harmful than helpful. One of the greatest results of any creative work is actually the effect it has on those who experience it - and on works they produce.

It's interesting, although not surprising when you think about it, the parallels between intellectual property rights and privacy rights. Both are important for society to function, and both are a balancing act. In the case of copyright, many of the changes in the past 50 or so years have been at the urging of large corporations such as Disney, Sony, and RCA to protect their financial interests. Now we're beginning to see that the tight control they sought is actually detrimental to society as a whole. I wonder how long it will take to show the same is true of personal freedom?